Out in the Open

'It's a wound I don't think will ever get covered': Five stories of life after the Toronto van attack

A survivor, a witness, a victim's family, the city's mayor and more talk to Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay about what happens in the aftermath of mass tragedy.

A survivor, a witness, a victim's family and more talk about what happens in the aftermath of mass tragedy

Rocco and Carmela D'Amico follow the casket of their daughter Anne Marie following her funeral service in Toronto on May 2, 2018. D'Amico was one of the ten victims of last Monday's van attack. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
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When a man in a van went barrelling into pedestrians in Toronto's north end on April 23, people across the city and country were shocked. The attack left 10 people dead and injured 16 more. In the five months since this tragic event, Canadians have largely returned to the routine of daily life. But as those directly affected by the attack tell Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay, their lives changed forever that day.

A survivor, a witness and a victim's family are now struggling to adapt to their unique new realities. Meanwhile, a former politician and a sitting mayor grapple with big decisions about how to act in tragedy's aftermath, and how those choices could affect the future.

These are their stories.

Survivor worries about adjusting to a new reality

Beverly Smith, pictured with her son Michael, lost both her legs after being struck in the Toronto van attack. (Debbie Pacheco)

Beverly Smith doesn't know what her new life is going to look like.

"I'm going to be at home and how am I going to be able to do this — get out of the bed, use the washroom, have breakfast, get dressed?"

Smith is a victim of the Toronto van attack. On April 23, the 81-year-old was struck while walking to her local library, a walk she's done many times before. She suffered brain injury and had to have both her legs amputated.

Beverly Smith's legs were amputated after she was struck in the Toronto van attack. Piya visits her at a rehab centre, where she's preparing to return home. 19:32

Now, the retired librarian is worried about adjusting to life in a wheelchair.

Smith spoke to Out in the Open before being discharged from a health facility in east Toronto, where she was receiving rehabilitative care.

"Here I have all of this help and when I get out, I'm going to have to fend for myself … I'll have help too but it's still going to be a trial," she said.

On Sept. 13, she returned to her apartment in North York.

Getting used to a new normal has also been hard on Smith's family.

"I cry a lot to be honest. I don't know what else to do sometimes," said Smith's son, Michael. 

"I used to get up, take my kids to school, go to work, come home, hang out with my mom and my family on the weekend. Now, I answer emails to lawyers, fight with insurance companies."

LISTEN: The Aftermath of Mass Tragedy

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Financial pressure adds to the difficulty for the family. Smith's home needed to be renovated, and she'll will require the help of a personal support worker. Her children's homes will also need to be refurbished so she can stay with them.

Smith will receive money from the Toronto Strong Fund, which was set up by the City of Toronto to coordinate donations for victims of the attack. The family has also created its own online fundraising page to help with expenses.

"My five-year-old, every time we cross the street, says we have to point so we don't get bumped by a car like Bevvy did," said Michael, who now gets separation anxiety when his kids aren't with him.

"It's heartbreaking. It makes me angry ... What a weird thing to have to think about all the time now: 'I don't want to get run over like my grandmother did.'"

Witness 'fell through the cracks' as he struggled with PTSD​

Rob Greco, right, and his girlfriend, Branka Donnelly. Greco witnessed the van attack, and spent time at the scene with a victim, Anne Marie D’Amico, as she lay dying. (Submitted by Branka Donnelly)

When Branka Donnelly got home from work on April 23, her boyfriend, Rob Greco, was still sitting in his van in their driveway.

He had called her earlier that afternoon in tears. On his drive to work, Greco had seen a van strike pedestrians while he was stopped at an intersection. Greco told her he'd gotten out of his vehicle to comfort one of the victims at the scene before paramedics took her away. Someone walking by had told Greco the woman's name: Anne Marie. 

That night, Donnelly and Greco turned to the internet for information. 

"He told me the name, Anne Marie, and we just started Googling," Donnelly said. The next morning, police publicly identified the first of the 10 deceased. Her name was Anne Marie D'Amico.

"It was a mess," Donnelly said of her boyfriend's reaction to the news.

In the months after the attack, Greco struggled to get a full night's sleep. He was missing days of work. A counsellor told him he had post-traumatic stress disorder. His thoughts were consumed by the horror of what he had witnessed. 

Rob Greco, a witness to the Toronto van attack, and his girlfriend Branka Donnelly, tell Piya how the mass tragedy has affected his mental health. 29:52

"My therapist says this is my new normal," Greco said. "It's pretty scary, thinking that I have to change, to accept my new life."

In the immediate aftermath of April 23, Canadians were donating to the injured and to the families of the dead. The city honoured the police officers and paramedics who'd responded to the attack. 

Meanwhile, Greco's therapy bills were piling up. Reading the news only worsened his feelings of isolation. 

"I was very upset at being the guy who fell through the cracks," he said. 

If any good has come out of this tragedy for Greco, it's the D'Amico family. Greco and Donnelly have come to know them since the attack. Greco said they've shown him appreciation for spending time with Anne Marie as she lay dying, and have practically made him part of the family. 

Greco was a pallbearer at Anne Marie's funeral. 

"It was an honour to do that," Greco said. "And it's an honour to know that family now."

'Moving forward signifies leaving her behind'

Anne Marie D’Amico, right, was the first deceased victim to be publicly identified after the attack. Left to right: Anne Marie’s sister, Frances, her parents, Rocco and Carmela, and her brother, Nick. (Submitted by the D'Amico family)

"This 'moving forward' business is a touchy phrase," said Anne Marie's father, Rocco D'Amico. "Moving forward, to me, signifies leaving her behind."

As part of their healing process, the D'Amico family visited the place where Greco spent time with Anne Marie as she lay dying. 

Carmela, Rocco and Nick D'Amico sit down with Piya to discuss their daughter and sister Anne Marie, the first publicly-identified victim of the Toronto van attack. 23:27

"The first time, I think we were all shaking," said Anne Marie's older brother, Nick.

"Getting there was really gut-wrenching," said Rocco. But visiting the site of the attack did help alleviate some of his suffering. 

"I felt her right there," he said. "I felt, 'You're okay. You're not in pain.'"

The D'Amicos, by their own description, are "the typical Italian family." The whole extended family has been sharing in their grief. Nick said that, in a way, this tragedy has brought them all even closer.

It's a wound I don't think will ever get covered.- Rocco  D'Amico

But for Anne Marie's mom, Carmela, little dulls the pain of losing her youngest daughter. "Every day's a struggle," she said.

As the first person killed in the attack to be identified publicly, Anne Marie became a focal point in early news coverage of the aftermath. Carmela said their house was constantly full of people for the first week after the attack. Hundreds came to greet them at the funeral.

"I did find comfort," Carmela said of the attention, "but it was extremely overwhelming."

But Rocco said Torontonians shouldn't feel shy about expressing their condolences to the family.

"We'll grab a hug any time," he said. "It's not as if you're opening up a wound. For me, it's a wound I don't think will ever get covered."

The family continues to struggle as they try to make sense of the attack. Rocco's faith has been tested by his daughter's death. He said Carmela used to thank God in her prayers for their healthy children.

"What do we thank God for now?"

Putting a price tag on suffering

Former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall volunteered to manage the Toronto Strong Fund. (The Canadian Press)

The victims and survivors of the Toronto van attack were from all walks of life.

Anne Marie D'Amico's family lost a 30-year-old daughter. Single mom Renuka Amarasinghe's death left behind a young son. Among the injured, Beverley Smith continues to acclimatize to her new life as a double amputee. Others left the emergency room that same day with scrapes and bruises. All have psychological trauma to contend with. 

All told, 26 people in Toronto were either killed or physically hurt on April 23.

And one person — Barbara Hall — has volunteered to determine how to compensate each of their families with money from the Toronto Strong Fund. 

Former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall speaks with Piya about how she's determining who gets what out of the $3.5 million donated to the Toronto Strong Fund. 7:13

"It's a way to feel a part of supporting people at the worst time in their lives," said the former Toronto mayor. 

Current Toronto Mayor John Tory asked Hall to manage the fund's disbursal, and she now has about $3.5 million worth of community contributions to distribute. 

"While it's a very significant amount, it's not going to be the total solution for anyone here," Hall said. 

"I've looked at it in terms of the level of impact," she explained. "The person who's still in hospital after a double amputation has been impacted more seriously than somebody who went to emerg on the day of the attack ... and went home." 

Money from the fund must be disbursed by Sept. 30, 2018, leaving Hall with little time to spare. Hall said she and others involved in administering the Toronto Strong Fund are taking their cues from events like the Boston Marathon bombing. But no two mass tragedies are alike, and there's no pleasing everyone when you're putting a price tag on pain. 

"Whether everybody totally agrees is probably unlikely," Hall said. "It feels weighty, I must say."

Picking up the pieces of a traumatized city

John Tory, alongside Justin Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne, attends the vigil for the victims of the Toronto van attack on April 29, 2018. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Toronto Mayor John Tory was excited when he started his day on April 23.

He was looking forward to welcoming a Syrian refugee family to Canada, who he and his wife helped sponsor.

But his plans changed that afternoon, when the van attack happened.

Toronto Mayor John Tory speaks with Piya about balancing his personal shock with his professional role in the aftermath of the Toronto van attack. 11:17

"I was angry that the, I don't want to call it the innocence of our city, but that our relatively peaceful way of life here had been interrupted by this terrible thing that somebody had done," said Tory.

He hoped the Syrian family, expected to land later that day, wouldn't watch the news.

"I'm thinking to myself, 'What are these people going to think?' That they've arrived at this place which everybody had said, 'This is the peaceful place.'"

One of the first things Tory did that afternoon was visit the site of the attack, where a command centre was stationed. 

"When I walked across Mel Lastman Square ... the first thing I saw were bodies on the street, still there, covered over. I don't know that there's a human being, whether you're a mayor, or whether you're just anybody, that couldn't be moved by that. And, sort of looking at that and thinking, 'Oh, my god. These are people,'" he said.

Tory kept reminding himself that, as a person in public office, he had a responsibility to remain calm and not let his feelings overwhelm him.

"You had to sort of suppress the anger in order to say that your job is to help heal, to comfort, to reassure." 

One of the lessons Tory said he learned about the role of government in a public tragedy like this one is to "let the community heal itself" by showing leadership, being where you need to be, and doing everything you can to offer support. But as an official, he said you don't decide how and when that happens.

Tory did eventually visit the Syrian family, at around 10:30 p.m.

"In a way, it was a great way to end the day. Because it was such a terrible, terrible day for the city, and for these families, and for everybody, and there I was at something that was actually quite joyful."